Drawing on Indigenous Perspectives: SJ Okemow’s Career Path To Medical Illustration
As one of the only Indigenous medical illustrators in her field, SJ Okemow is designing a career path for herself that’s extraordinary. Currently living in Toronto, originally from Calgary, Alberta, she works as a medical illustrator and sessional instructor teaching animation. She also delivers sessions teaching introductory digital illustration and sharing about medical illustration as a career.
Okemow had never heard of medical illustration until later in her undergraduate career and she wanted to be a doctor for a long time. In high school, she was interested in drawing, but pursued a bachelor's of science program instead. While studying physiology, she realized she wanted to have more art in her career. Medical illustration seemed like a good mix of being able to draw and also learn about anatomy.
She discovered her career path while looking at art exhibitions and came across a doctor who drew anatomical art. Looking at their career history, she saw they did a master's program specifically in medical illustration, a path she later chose for herself. While it’s not necessary to enter the field, Okemow found it helpful so she could learn more about the industry.
The high school she attended was the performing and visual art school of Calgary at the time and she immersed herself in drawing as she studied. She went onto university at UBC and ended up getting TB, which created a lot of challenges for her educational journey.
“I think that's also part of the reason why I was really interested in healthcare and healthcare communication in general: I was so sick for so long and didn't really have a good understanding of what was happening to me. I think having that experience and wanting to be able to communicate those things to patients a lot better was really important to me.”
She pushed through her undergrad but found her master's experience was a lot better. Okemow enjoyed the smaller class sizes compared to her undergrad and if she had to do it over, she says she might have gone to a smaller university. Because she was so young and her mother hadn't gone to university before, she didn't know about the support systems that could have been helpful to her. Okemow wishes she had reached out and got support, and she really struggled meeting people during her undergraduate years due to her illness.
Many of those challenging experiences shape how she teaches now and makes her interested in students’ circumstances. “I think that a lot of students come into university and they have a very specific idea of who I am as a teacher, as an instructor, as a professor. I really want to be able to break down those barriers,” she shares. Okemow believes students and teachers can learn from each other and she’s really excited to continue teaching.
As part of her educational journey, Okemow moved abroad and it was something she was very excited about. “It was like a really, really amazing experience. I saved up for a while to make sure that I was able to do it because like once you get there, you're kind of stuck there a little bit,” she remembers.
She recommends being open to the support systems that exist and to communicate with your professors. “I think that there is a shift within academia where professors are a lot more open to understanding that like people have life outside of school,” she suggests. She was able to go back home and write her master's thesis, which she appreciated.
Okemow had support in her master’s program so she wouldn’t feel alone, but she wishes there were more Indigenous medical illustrators in her industry. She knows of one other Indigenous illustrator and she thinks the representation is crucial.
“It's such an important thing that we're able to tell our own health stories, that we can create the narrative of how we want to talk about our health, our healthcare system, even thinking about what's happened in the pandemic and the vaccine hesitancy. I think that there's been a lot of really great, important talks given by a lot of Indigenous doctors and people in the healthcare field. But I would just love it if there were more people who are dedicated to visualizing and communicating in that way to help.”
In her free time, Okemow is writing a children’s book and spends time with her dog, a mixed breed pup who was found on the beach in El Salvador. She never really considered herself a writer, but she’s thriving in a career she once didn’t know even existed. In her work, she’s telling health stories from an Indigenous perspective, and afterwards she’s working on something a little more lyrical and poetic. The artistry with which she lives her life is creating Indigenous representation in her industry, reclaiming the narratives of Indigenous people from the inside out and bringing compassion back to the classroom.
Special thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this blog post.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.